Through The Static

June 25, 2008

Albanian Custom Fades: Woman as Family Man

Filed under: Gargoyles,Gender,World News — disciplepete @ 6:15 pm

This is a pretty fascinating article from the NYT about a fading tradition in Albania: when there were no men around in a family, a woman would take an oath to be a virgin, dress up as a man, take on male roles, and be recognized in society as deserving the privileges of a man. The trippiest thing for me in this article is how some of these women who became men have stereotypical male chauvinist attitudes and seem pretty pleased with the choice they made.

The tradition of the sworn virgin can be traced to the Kanun of Leke Dukagjini, a code of conduct passed on orally among the clans of northern Albania for more than 500 years. Under the Kanun, the role of a woman is severely circumscribed: take care of children and maintain the home. While a woman’s life is worth half that of a man, a virgin’s value is the same: 12 oxen.

The sworn virgin was born of social necessity in an agrarian region plagued by war and death. If the family patriarch died with no male heirs, unmarried women in the family could find themselves alone and powerless. By taking an oath of virginity, women could take on the role of men as head of the family, carry a weapon, own property and move freely.

They dressed like men and spent their lives in the company of other men, even though most kept their female given names. They were not ridiculed, but accepted in public life, even adulated. For some the choice was a way for a woman to assert her autonomy or to avoid an arranged marriage.

Looks like things are changing:

…”The Albanian woman today is a sort of minister of economics, a minister of affection and a minister of interior who controls who does what,” said Ilir Yzeiri, who writes about Albanian folklore. “Today, women in Albania are behind everything.”

Some sworn virgins bemoan the changes. Diana Rakipi, 54, a security guard in the seaside city of Durres, in west Albania, who became a sworn virgin to take care of her nine sisters, said she looked back with nostalgia on the Hoxha era. During Communist times, she was a senior army officer, training women as combat soldiers. Now, she lamented, women do not know their place.

“Today women go out half naked to the disco,” said Ms. Rakipi, who wears a military beret. “I was always treated my whole life as a man, always with respect. I can’t clean, I can’t iron, I can’t cook. That is a woman’s work.”



  1. I read this when it came out and thought it was a really interesting story. It is sad that because of Western influences, this custom is fading but I think that’s part of change and evolution. Culture changes, even traditions change with time. When it’s against a culture/country’s will to change (such as Tibet!), that’s when I don’t agree with change.

    Comment by ausaydong — June 29, 2008 @ 1:05 pm | Reply

  2. it was a time of darkness… it was the age… of GARGOYLES.

    Comment by bobbleheadedbob — June 30, 2008 @ 9:38 am | Reply

  3. ausaydong, yeah I don’t know how I feel about that custom changing…I mean it seems like an oppressive custom to me. Not saying the evolving customs are much better or anything though…

    Comment by disciplepete — June 30, 2008 @ 10:41 am | Reply

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